Earlier this month, Rep. Conor Lamb voted to repeal the 2002 military authorization for the Iraq War, after opposing its repeal two years ago. It was the latest example of the Pennsylvania Democrat’s increasing willingness to vote with his party as he navigates a competitive House district and weighs a Senate run.
All eyes are on Lamb as the Senate primary field takes shape in the Keystone State, with fellow Democratic Reps. Chrissy Houlahan and Madeleine Dean recently announcing they will not run. Contested primaries are expected in both parties for retiring Republican Patrick J. Toomey’s seat.
For Lamb, a Marine veteran and former prosecutor, one of his biggest selling points as a Senate candidate would be his record of winning competitive races by wooing voters from both parties.
Since he won a March 2018 special election that foreshadowed the blue wave that helped Democrats win House control that November, part of Lamb’s appeal in his Western Pennsylvania district has been his willingness to buck his party and work across the aisle. But data tracked by CQ Roll Call shows that Lamb has become more likely to vote with a majority of his fellow Democrats on votes that split the parties, although he still occasionally breaks ranks.
After pulling off an upset in a district former President Donald Trump won by 20 points in 2016, Lamb quickly became one of the lawmakers most likely to split with his party’s leadership.
In 2018, his votes aligned with Democratic leadership 77 percent of the time, according to CQ Vote Watch, breaking with the party line on 48 of 203 votes. The party unity score for the average House Democrat that year, by comparison, was 94 percent.
Lamb’s party unity score grew to 92 percent in 2019, then dipped to 83 percent in 2020. But so far this year, he has voted with a majority of his fellow Democrats 99 percent of the time. Lamb’s campaign and his congressional office did not respond to multiple requests for comment on his voting record.
Democratic strategists in Pennsylvania and Washington said the shift could be a sign that Lamb is positioning for a statewide run, when he would have to appeal more to the party’s liberal base. But they cautioned it could also be a reflection of his competitive House district, a deepening partisan divide and the realities of fundraising.
In November 2018, Lamb ran for a full term from a different district after the state Supreme Court threw out the old map as a partisan gerrymander. Challenging GOP Rep. Keith Rothfus in the new 17th District, Lamb won by 13 points in a seat Trump would have carried by 2 points had the new lines been in place in 2016.
Running in the same district last year, Lamb won a close race, defeating Republican Army veteran Sean Parnell by 2 points as Democrat Joe Biden was carrying the seat over Trump by 3 points, according to calculations by Daily Kos Elections. Parnell is seeking the GOP nomination for Senate this cycle.
“You could pretty safely have a Democratic voting record in that district and hold it,” said former Democratic Rep. Jason Altmire, who represented a competitive Western Pennsylvania district from 2007 through 2013. “That district allows for members to have a little bit more freedom in voting with party leadership.”
Democrats have also become more unified in recent years, according to CQ Vote Watch. The average House Democrat’s party unity score has risen from 94 percent in 2018 to 99 percent so far in 2021.
A person familiar with Lamb’s thinking said the shift in his voting score reflected changes in leadership, with Democrats winning control of the House in 2018 and the White House and the Senate in 2020.
“By and large, the stuff that leadership put on the floor were very widely popular bills that the whole caucus had basically run on, from the middle to the left,” the person said.
With just a four-seat majority in the House, there is also less room for Democrats to break with their party. When Speaker Nancy Pelosi had a larger majority in the last Congress, Lamb and other swing district Democrats often voted with Republicans on politically charged procedural votes, known as “motions to recommit.”
In 2019, Lamb was one of 26 Democrats who voted for a motion to recommit that added language to a gun control bill requiring the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to be notified when an undocumented immigrant attempts to buy a firearm.
Lamb and 16 of those Democrats won reelection in 2020. All voted against a similar motion to recommit this year.
Lamb did not issue any statements or tweets when the vote occurred, and his office did not respond to a request for comment on the changed vote. But House Democrats this year also changed the rules for such motions to block Republicans from being able to attach specific legislative actions to them. This makes the motions, despite the rhetoric surrounding them during floor debate, more of a procedure to simply kill a bill, making Democrats less inclined to support them.
‘Squarely in the middle’
Lamb still describes himself as a centrist.
“I think I’m squarely in the middle of where the Democratic Party is,” he told Slate this month.
Some of Lamb’s priorities, such as benefits for veterans, attract support from both sides of the aisle, noted G. Terry Madonna, a senior fellow in residence for political affairs at Millersville University in Pennsylvania. Madonna pointed out that even the registered Democrats in Lamb’s district aren’t necessarily in line with the party’s power center on the other side of the state in the Philadelphia area.
“They are conservative Democrats — they’re not for gun control,” he said. “They’re pro-life.”
Lamb has broken with leadership on some issues, particularly on supporting Pelosi for speaker. He voted in 2019 for Massachusetts Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III and in January for Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries of New York.
Lamb was also one of six Democrats to vote in December 2020 against a bill that would decriminalize marijuana, which raised some eyebrows among Pennsylvania Democrats, who said that vote could be used against him in a Senate primary. Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who also hails from Western Pennsylvania and is a front-runner in the Democratic Senate primary, has been a staunch proponent of legalizing marijuana.
Lamb said in a statement after his vote: “I support decriminalizing marijuana. It’s a big, serious issue that needs to be done the right way. This is a small, non-serious bill that wasn’t done the right way and will never be signed into law, regardless of who is President.”
Lamb and Fetterman do agree that the 60-vote threshold to end debate in the Senate, known as the filibuster, should be eliminated.
“I believe the filibuster has to go,” Lamb tweeted last month after Senate Republicans filibustered a bill that would have created an independent commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.
Lamb’s filibuster comments could be another sign that he is gearing up for a Senate run, since eliminating the procedure has become a rallying cry on the left. Opposing it could help Lamb build a national donor base, which could pay off even if he runs for reelection to the House since his district could become even more Republican in redistricting. Pennsylvania is losing a congressional seat next year because of reapportionment.
Shortly after Lamb announced his views on ending the filibuster, his House campaign dispatched a fundraising appeal to would-be donors that read: “Now it’s time to end the filibuster’s grip on progress in this country.”
It’s the kind of messaging that could appeal to small-dollar contributors, an important source of money since Lamb has refused to accept donations from the PACs of individual companies following his special election win.
So far this cycle, Lamb’s fundraising has been respectable for a competitive House incumbent — but not top-tier.
His campaign hauled in about $411,000 in the first quarter of this year. For comparison, the average House Democratic incumbent seeking reelection who had been targeted by the National Republican Congressional Committee at that time raised $562,000 in the first three months of this year. Lamb’s campaign had $1.1 million on hand at the end of the quarter, putting him in the middle of a pack of the 42 targeted Democrats.
Ryan Kelly contributed to this report.